Saturday, August 13, 2011

Pilot Season Crashes Hard For Buffy The Vampire Slayer: "Welcome To The Hellmouth" And "The Harvest!"

The Good: Moments of character, Decent enough plot
The Bad: Terrible acting, Generally poor special effects, Much of the character elements, Plays off movie
The Basics: Buffy The Vampire Slayer gets off to a rocky start with much exposition in "Welcome To The Hellmouth" and "The Harvest," a two-parter not quite worth the buy.

I am a fan of the television show Angel and I have an appreciation for Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I wanted to get that right out of the way because one suspects that when I get going in this review, readers might be tempted to flame me with messages about how Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the best program ever and I'm some form of tasteless troll for not absolutely loving the series. I do have an appreciation for Buffy The Vampire Slayer and there are even moments I come to love the show.

The pilot is not one of those moments. I think my response to accusations of my trolldom for not loving the first episodes of the series would have to be that those who unflinchingly call them excellent are tools. I know, I rate things more strictly than most, but 10/10 is all about excellence - and in my rating philosophy, perfection - and those who think the first episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer are excellent or perfect are either so biased as to be ineffectual reviewers or have nowhere near the experience with television as they need to in order to fairly rate the episodes.

That said, it's a surprise from the two-part pilot episode "Welcome To The Hellmouth" and "The Harvest" that Buffy The Vampire Slayer was picked up for a full season, much less lasted seven seasons!

In "Welcome To The Hellmouth," troubled teen Buffy Summers arrives at Sunnydale, California, a town infested by vampires. Attempting to avoid her destiny as the chosen one having been kicked out of her last school, which she burned down, Buffy arrives eager to start fresh without any conflicts revolving around vampires or other forms of evil which she has the strength and speed to thwart. As students turn up dead from vampires, Buffy learns that the school's librarian is her new Watcher, a guide and trainer intended to help her prepare to take out the vampires and that her new friends in Sunnydale might be in danger because of her.

In "The Harvest," Buffy manages to save Willow and Xander from the attacks of Luke and Darla, but Xander's friend Jesse goes missing. Giles, Buffy's watcher, tracks down information on the Hellmouth and the Master who is trapped below the town. According to prophecy, the Master requires a slaughter to bring him sustenance, a Harvest that will allow him to ascend to the mortal plane and Giles realizes that time is now and Buffy might be the only one who may stand in his way!

Because this is a two-part episode that one immediately feels ought to have been a two-hour pilot movie, I tend to refer to these episodes as an episode and will likely do for the duration of the review. Indeed, the only real "two part" moment comes with the end of "Welcome To The Hellmouth" when Buffy is given a simple cliffhanger freeze moment to end the episode. Buffy The Vampire Slayer has some amazing cliffhangers in the course of the series, the best of which come at the end of episodes that have sped by and I classify as "Joss Whedon Moments." This first attempt falls flat; the end lacks the genuine menace or emotional resonance of a Joss Whedon moment and it does not absolutely sell the viewer on the necessity of tuning in for the next episode.

The best aspect of this pilot has to be the casting. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was cast off potential. Completely. For example, Anthony Stewart Head - who plays Giles - had played a role much like Giles in another genre series called VR-5 (reviewed here!). It is easy to see from that how he might be cast as Giles. Similarly, guest star Eric Balfour, who plays Jesse, is given a good role right out of the gate that seems tailor-made for him. The talent exists within almost all of the actors cast.

Unfortunately for the objective television viewer, that potential remains largely untapped in this episode. Head, for example, gives one of the better performances but even he seems clunky and unfamiliar with the role. On VR-5, he easily worked his way around extreme technobabble. Yet in this series opener, he flounders around with no clear idea of who his character is and half the time he presents his lines like someone guessing at their meaning. Considering that Head is one of the consistent standouts of the cast, this is fairly problematic.

Similarly, Balfour's talent remains untapped in this episode as he is underused and never finds the balance between being a good guy and the menace needed to sell his character. Indeed, he is not used in an effective way like that until his appearances on Six Feet Under, where he has a meaty role in the first season (reviewed here!).

As for the regulars, the only one to give a noteworthy performance is Alyson Hannigan as Willow, which seems odd to write because her character is so clunky. Shy and geeky, Willow presents a serious acting challenge: to establish an extreme introvert without seeming like the character's problems are acting deficiencies. Having seen Hannigan in several other things, like How I Met Your Mother, it becomes clear that such character traits are very much not the actresses natural state, so her ability to pull that off so convincingly is a sign of quality acting.

It is, unfortunately, the only example in "Welcome To The Hellmouth" and "The Harvest." Series star Sarah Michelle Gellar clomps through the motions without any zest for her character and the witty banter she spouts out almost all falls flat. She seems to have no idea where her character has been or who she is.

At least Gellar is not alone. None of the characters leap off the screen as even remotely compelling. At best, they seem like "types" with Buffy being the obvious hero, Willow being nerdy sidekick, Giles the mentor, Xander the lovesick potential love interest, and Cordelia popping up as regular antagonist. None of them distinguish themselves in the mind as being distinct or interesting in this episode.

Finally, the effects and direction are clunky and very much what one expects of the least fortunate of pilot episodes. For sure, Buffy The Vampire Slayer might well have not had the budget necessary to make the series right from the start, but there are a number of shots, specifically revolving around the dusting of vampires, which are terrible and obvious effects shots. The direction becomes such that there is a freezing of the screen for several frames before the dustings which foreshadows each special effect shot. In other words, in this episode, this is hardly a seamless reality.

And the plot is fine, but it is hardly surprising or truly engaging. Girl comes to town seeking a new life and is forced into the role she was trying to avoid. It's fine, but it's not the best Buffy The Vampire Slayer plot. "Welcome To The Hellmouth" and "The Harvest" have any number of notable firsts which many fans of the series will say need to be seen, however, given the simple concept of the series, it's possible to jump ahead to some of the better episodes without actually losing much. So, one does not see how Buffy and Angel meet or Buffy's first staking or the introduction of the Master; the next time all of those things happen, they tend to be in better episodes and the viewer can pretty much figure out what is going on.

Television was better with Buffy The Vampire Slayer on it, but it had a rocky start and this episode which one might figure to be essential is in some ways better assumed. Because it is VHS, one might consider just trying to catch these episodes in syndicated rerun rather than purchasing this set.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Buffy The Vampire Slayer - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season here!
or the complete series is available here!

"Welcome To The Hellmouth" - 3.5/10
"The Harvest" - 4.5/10
VHS - 3.5/10

For other television reviews, please be sure to check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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